Four innovative Reading women growing our indie food and drink scene

Did you know that only one third of small business owners in the UK are women? Or that 17% of UK chefs are female? Or that a teeny, tiny 4% of breweries worldwide have a woman brewmaster?

Well, in Reading, although we’re not completely bucking the trend, some of our most exciting and creative restaurant, cafe and bar businesses have women at the helm. So, to introduce some of the female business owners in Reading, I interviewed four women who are at the front of Reading’s exciting independent food and drink scene.

Find out what inspired each of the women to start their own businesses, what challenges they’ve faced along the way, their advice for new entrepreneurs and what they would like to improve in Reading’s independent scene.


Runs: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Nandana Syamala

Indian-born Nandana spent years working in the IT industry in London while feeling frustrated with the UK’s Indian food scene. Unable to find a restaurant serving the dishes she ate at home, Nandana and her husband Sharat, a chef for the Taj Hotel group, decided to leave their jobs and start a Hyderabadi restaurant themselves.

After two years of research and searching for properties outside the London bubble, (they almost went to Milton Keynes – Reading is very lucky) they opened Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in June 2018. Just six months later Clay’s picked up the Best New Restaurant and Reader’s Choice gongs in the Explore Reading Food & Drink Awards. Now that their London Street restaurant has been open for nine months, Nandana plans to use their premises and business know-how to help other aspiring women chefs get a start in the industry.

What inspired you to make the jump from day job to starting your own restaurant?

I was working as an IT consultant, but I was more focused on learning new technologies than actually working on one role for a long time. I am someone who gets bored quickly – which is the main reason our menu changes so frequently, to keep it exciting for everyone.

I always wanted to do something on my own terms. Food was the one thing Sharat and I were both were passionate about and, since there wasn’t anyone else doing the kind of food we had in mind in the UK, starting a restaurant was the only logical step forward for us. Of course, it took many years from conceptualising to the final implementation.

What’s been your biggest challenge with Clay’s so far?

Our biggest challenge still is finding the right staff. The saddest thing is, most of the people we have interviewed all have previous experience working in many chains around the high street but none of them even know how to cut an onion properly. Everything apparently comes pre-prepared for them. And once they learn we don’t serve anything from bags or cans, it can seem like too much work.

And your biggest success?

The biggest success for us undoubtedly is the love and support we have gained from the lovely people of Reading. We feel like a part of such a large big-hearted community, we only regret not starting this restaurant earlier.

Photography: David John New

You run Clay’s with your husband Sharat, how do you feel your dynamic has benefited your business?

This industry is known for its killer hours, which can cause family life to suffer, which indirectly affects the business at some point. But since we cook together and work together, we are happier and that does reflect on everything we do.

How do you feel we can encourage more women to work as chefs?

By showing them it can be done and by celebrating women chefs around us. If women chefs already in the industry can promote and encourage aspiring women chefs, it would be great. That’s exactly what Clay’s has decided to do. We have decided to lend our premises at least once a month to any aspiring women chef who is passionate and does honest food but does not have all the resources to start on their own.

How have you developed your own management style since running your own restaurant?

To be honest, I haven’t managed to acquire that particular skill set yet. I still feel like Clay’s is our home and everyone who comes here is visiting us. We cook the food exactly as we used to when hosting friends and family, with the same love and care. Our staff feels like our family and we celebrate everything together. In hindsight, maybe that is my management style.

Do you have any advice for Reading women thinking of starting their own business?

Just go do it. It does not have to be big. You can always start small. And in this digital age, with a little bit of work, it is so easy to make people see your product. Learn to use social media.

And more than anything, make sure you have something good in your hands. Do not compromise on quality at any cost. Do not go looking for shortcuts. There aren’t any unless you are okay with being mediocre.

What would you like to see added to Reading’s independent restaurant scene?

I would love to see Reading as a hub of world cuisine. I would love to see many independents doing different regional cuisines. More than anything, a great Spanish tapas place, a seafood place, an amazing bakery, a Louisiana style Creole / Cajun cuisine place…the list can go on!

Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, 45 London Street, Reading RG1 4PS. Read more about Clay’s.

Keti Maglakelidze

Runs: Georgian Feast, Geo-Cafe and Suneli

Georgian entrepreneur Keti Maglakelidze started her career as a journalist before moving to the UK. She’s been in Reading for 17 years and in 2014 founded her first business, Suneli, to import spices after finding it difficult to get hold of Georgia’s unique ingredients in the UK. That quickly transitioned into Georgian Feast, a street food stall making dishes from her home country, such as ajika chicken and the iconic khachapuri cheese bread. After a year or two of markets, pop ups and residencies around Reading, Georgian Feast made the final of the British Street Food Awards in Portsmouth in 2018.

Keti now has a full time home for her cooking at Geo-Cafe in Caversham. She still writes articles and interviews for Georgian media outlets when she isn’t running one of her three businesses, or raising her family.

Georgian Feast began as a street food stall, what advantages does that have for getting started in the food business?

For us, our street food platform has been the core of our success. We‘re introducing a completely different type of food to the market. People were mixing up Georgia the country with the American state and the Georgian era, so face-to-face interaction was vital to break the ice.

People like to see how their dish is made and who makes it, they like to watch you making things for them, literally sweating for them. Street food has all that with a low cost, flexibility and customer traffic. If you look at its progress, it’s been a game changer in the food scene, more and more solid-roof cafe-restaurants are inviting street food vendors in to boost their sales.

The internet also does wonders for us. We’ve had a customer who was following from the US visit our stall at Forbury Gardens straight from Heathrow before popping back on the M4 to Bristol.

You’ve recently moved from markets to your own permanent cafe. What’s been the biggest challenge with that?

I’ve found the biggest challenge has been with business partners. From my recent experience, and also from talking to other business women around me, I’ve seen that some more traditional, older business owners still see women in business as some form of taboo. Maybe they think a woman will have a softer approach or won’t know what they’re doing, so they think we need leadership or someone who will take control. I guess there are still some stereotypes that need to be broken down.

You have three children. How have you found balancing a business and a family?

It’s not easy, there are lots of sacrifices and guilty feelings. Generally self-employment, for both men and women with families, can be daunting, but at the same time it’s rewarding.

You learn lots of skills by running a business and your family will be the first to benefit from those. And if you are lucky enough to sustain your business, your objectives evolve with time. You’ll leave something that future generations can pick up and build on, to keep your once crackly start-up alive.

Do you have any advice for Reading women thinking of starting their own business?

Being out in public for the last four years I’ve met many people – men and women – who are fed up with 9-5 jobs. Often they are very smart individuals, who eat lunch at our market stall and in the conversation don’t hide their envy at being away from their office. They dream they can sell things they’ve touched or made themselves.

I recommend learning at least one practical skill that is in demand, staying true to your values and at the same time being open-minded, curious to everything new and networking with like-minded people. It will take you on the most interesting path of your life. Also remember, your business is your baby so make your family aware how important it is to you, so they can accept it and be part of it.

What would you like to see added to Reading’s independent restaurant scene?

Sri-Lankan food would be a good addition to Reading. We met Tambapanni, vendors from Devon, when we were both finalists at the British Street Food Awards in Portsmouth last year. Ever since, I’ve had the bug for authentic Sri-Lankan street food, like hoppers, which aren’t available yet in Reading.

Geo-Cafe, 10 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG, read more about Geo-Cafe

Luci Clayton-Jones

Runs: Double-Barrelled Brewery

Luci Clayton Jones

Luci Clayton-Jones opened Double-Barrelled Brewery and Tap Room with her husband Mike in December 2018. After studying business and marketing at university, she spent six years working as a brand manager for a number of big name companies before deciding to jump into business ownership after falling in love with the beer-making process – thanks to a pilot brewing kit in their garage.

Last year, for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day, (yes, that is a thing), Luci brewed a Kumquat Berliner Weisse beer called VP of EMEA and APAC, a name which nods to her previous career in the corporate world and takes a poke at the lack of women in boardroom positions, read more about that beer. For International Women’s Day 2019, Luci has partnered with the women at Caversham pub The Fox and Hounds to brew Vixen, a Pina Colada Milkshake IPA, which will be served at The Fox from 7 – 10 March.

What got you interested in brewing beer?

It was trying a beer that someone else had made and wanting to know how to recreate it myself. I have tried many incredible 12% barrel-aged stouts or amazing fruited sours that I found incredible to drink. I want to be the person who creates that experience for someone else.

Why did you decide to leave marketing and start running a brewery?

My career began at big multinational brands. I quickly learnt that you don’t get the ability to shape many elements, and, in fact, the bigger the brand, the smaller the influence you have. Running Double-Barrelled is a such an unique opportunity to own every part of the brand – and it’s a brand I helped create! For me, it’s a dream.

I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet when I see the beer on the shelf that it’s actually ‘mine’. I’ve touched every element of it: I helped make the product, create the brand and the label, I packaged it, I priced it, I sold it, I delivered it and then I posted about it all on social media. When you put it like that, it’s quite a cool achievement!

Double-Barrelled is still a very new business, what’s been the toughest part so far?

The learning curve has been rather steep! I feel both Mike and I had quite strong business backgrounds prior to opening this brewery, but there is no way we could know everything we need to know. From EPOS systems for the tap room to VAT returns, trade effluent disposals, craft beer distribution and setting up payroll. It’s fairly non-stop and a bit relentless. The adrenalin of needing to keep the business alive keeps me going for the most part.

What do you hope for the future of Double-Barrelled?

We are still in the stage where I just hope we stay in business! I would like Double-Barrelled to become a great brewery tap room for Reading locals, but also to gain national respect for our beers. If we manage that, then I think we have the greatest chance of staying in business for as long as possible. Then we get to do what we set out to do in the first place: barrel-aging!

You and your husband Mike set up Double-Barrelled together. Do you think that’s made things easier, or more complicated?

We have very complementary skills sets and have come from very different business backgrounds, which has definitely helped. The biggest challenge as a couple is leaving it all behind at the end of the day. I essentially spend 24/7 with the person I work with, and we don’t do much else at the moment other than work, so it’s quite hard to escape it all when you need some down time.

Equally, when things are tough, or we are working late nights, there’s no-one else with the positive energy to bring your spirits up, cook your tea or put the washing on. But at least we are in it all together.

You’re working with The Fox and Hounds on their Vixen event for International Women’s Day 2019. Do you think it’s important to get more women involved in beer?

The Vixen event is a great festival of women in primarily male-dominated industries: brewing, beer and music. It’s about women supporting women and raising money for great women’s charities, so it was a real honour to be asked to be involved.

For me, it’s absolutely important to get more women involved in beer. The UK actually has one of the lowest percentages of female beer drinkers in the world which is sadly reflected in the industry. Increasing diversity in every way, in every industry, is important.

I still have people come in to our tap room and ask me for the “beer women like”. Why do people say that about beer? Nobody would ever ask “which is the pizza that women prefer?”, or “what’s the coffee that men drink?” Tastes are all personal, what’s gender got to do with it?

Do you have any advice for Reading women thinking of starting their own business?

It’s a bit cliché, but so many people said to me: “If you don’t do it, you’ll regret that more.” There’s lots of support out there for new businesses – networking, free mentoring, countless websites – so seek as much advice as you can. Back your assumptions with tangible data where possible. Don’t just see a ‘trend’, know there is one, at what part of the life cycle it’s at and if there’s a gap for what you want to do.

But along with all that advice, you need the confidence to believe what you are doing is the right thing and to not get swayed by the hundreds of opinions that will be offered to you. It’s important to take feedback but more important to know who to listen to and when.

What do you think Reading’s independent business scene still needs?

There are more independent businesses popping up each week, and that’s fantastic. I would love to see more independent businesses in high traffic locations, or perhaps a grouping of great independents together. I think it would be great if there were more areas of Reading that are known specifically for our independent locally-owned shops, cafes and restaurants.

Double-Barrelled Brewery, Unit 20, Stadium Way, Reading, RG30 6BX. Read more about Double Barrelled Brewery.

Naomi Lowe

Runs: Nibsy’s Coffee Shop

Back in 2009 Naomi Lowe was diagnosed as gluten intolerant. A few years later, she left her career in investment management to have her first child and decided to follow her dream of running a coffee shop. Having struggled to find baked goods she could eat for so long, she realised there was gap in the market and Reading’s first dedicated gluten-free coffee shop opened on Cross Street in mid-2014.

Now, nearly five years on, Naomi has expanded her homemade food range to cater for people who are gluten intolerant, coeliac, vegan and more and in 2017 Nibsy’s was awarded the title of ‘Best Cafe’ in the Reading Retail Awards. Naomi closed Nibsy’s during the pandemic.

What’s been your proudest moment as a business owner?

No specific moment of ‘proudness’ springs to mind. But, not being the most academic person, although I have a can-do attitude, I’m proud that what now exists was once just a little dream, and that I made it happen with sheer hard work and determination. I’m really proud that I was brave enough to go down the exclusively gluten-free path, which was a risk but it felt right to stick to my beliefs and to not be ruled by fear.

What have you found the toughest things about running a business in Reading?

Having a work life balance, because if I’m not on my feet, then I’m home working on paperwork. But now I have my husband working with me, the workload is shared and things feel much more manageable.

In terms of the business being in Reading, I think this is a blessing. We have a great town where I sense a huge appreciation for small independent businesses, so for that I am incredibly grateful.

How have you developed your management style as your team of bakers and staff has gotten larger?

A business like this cannot survive without a good team. I am very hands on and there’s no job too big or small for me, so my management style starts with an expectation that the team all muck in too while having fun when possible.

Managing people is never easy but when things are good it’s possibly one of the most rewarding things. My team, both past and present, are fantastic and have helped the business become what it is today. We have a good routine now, which makes the day to day running of things more organised.

You’ve recently had a new baby, how have you found balancing your business and your family?

It’s not been easy! I forgot how hard the first weeks are with fatigue. Not having the luxury of proper maternity leave means finding extra hours in the day (and night) to get things done. Leonard is now three months old and his older brother Bradley is amazing with him, and last night I had a solid seven hours sleep! Woopwoop!

Do you have any advice for Reading women thinking of starting their own business?

Start with a mind map of your vision and don’t worry too much about obstacles at this stage. Focus on what it is that makes the idea special and look at the numbers too – what will the whole thing cost to set up and run day to day? Then figure out how viable it will be. If the figures stack up, go for it.

What do you think could improve Reading’s independent food scene?

There is a huge amount of talent in Reading, with a real mixture of choice. I’d personally love to find more time to go and enjoy our local independents, be it coffee shops, markets, restaurants, or pop up venues, as I’m often stuck in the Nibsy’s bubble of work and then home life.

I guess a few ideas spring to mind: collaboration of businesses to offer customers new experiences and also more pop up pitches or better use of empty spaces. The uncertainty around the future of high streets is a challenge and where there are challenges, opportunities and change becomes more important.

Nibsy’s Coffee Shop closed in 2020.

Read more

Eight dishes to try at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Who are Double-Barrelled Brewery?

Hot new Reading restaurant openings in 2019


View Comment (1)
  • What I love about this article is that it doesn’t even include female food entrepreneurs that I knew! Tutu, Yasmina Siatadan, and Laura from Bench rest were the ones who came to mind. So many are in Reading!

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